Cancer is a disease that occurs when cells in the body mutate and begin growing abnormally. The symptoms of cancer in females will depend on where in the body it is, its size, and how it impacts nearby organs.

Females can develop many of the same types of cancer as males. But some types are only possible in those with female reproductive organs. There are also types of cancer that females experience more often than males.

In this article, we will look at the symptoms of cancer in females, including breast cancer, cervical cancer, and more.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Many types of cancer occur in both males and females. For these types of cancer, the symptoms are often similar regardless of a person’s sex.

But some types of cancer only affect people with female reproductive organs, such as the uterus, ovaries, or cervix.

Some types of cancer are also more common in females than males. This may be due to biological differences between sexes, social factors that influence their lives, or a combination of both.

Genes also play a role. Although males and females can carry altered copies of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes (which increase the risk of certain cancers), the types of cancer these genes are most associated with more commonly affect females.

As a result, females may need to monitor for slightly different warning signs of cancer and take different measures to detect it early because of these factors.

The following sections look at some of the types of cancer that affect females, along with their symptoms.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. Several types of skin cancer are more common in females than in males, including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and among younger adults, melanoma.

The symptoms of skin cancer include:

  • new moles or growths on the skin
  • changes to existing moles’ size, shape, or color
  • darkened skin
  • a sore that will not heal

A 2015 analysis suggests that among young females, the use of indoor tanning devices may be driving cases of skin cancer. The use of indoor tanning beds is associated with an increased risk of skin cancer. While males and females can both use tanning beds, they are more popular among females.

Learn about tanning and how to reduce its risks.

Breast cancer can occur in males and females, but it is more common among females. After skin cancer, it is the second most common type of cancer in females in the U.S.

The symptoms include:

  • a new lump or mass inside the breast
  • swelling in part of the breast, or the whole breast
  • heaviness in the breast
  • dimpled skin that may resemble orange peel
  • an open wound or lesion that develops spontaneously
  • nipple or breast pain
  • inverted nipples
  • flaky, dry, red, or thickened skin
  • nipple discharge that is not the result of lactation
  • swollen lymph nodes in the armpits or around the collarbone

Despite the difference in prevalence, the symptoms of breast cancer tend to be similar in all people. This is because the biological makeup of breast tissue does not vary much between sexes.

Additionally, it is possible for a person of any sex to inherit genetic mutations that increase the risk of breast cancer in males and females to varying degrees. Examples include the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes.

Learn more about genes and their role in breast cancer.

While more males develop lung cancer each year, cases have risen by 84% in females since 1975. It is also the leading cause of cancer-related deaths in females, overtaking breast cancer.

The symptoms of lung cancer are similar in females as in other sexes, and include:

  • shortness of breath
  • a persistent cough
  • wheezing or hoarseness
  • difficulty swallowing
  • coughing up blood
  • chest pain
  • recurring lung infections
  • fatigue (lack of energy)
  • weight loss

According to a 2018 analysis, the increased rate of lung cancer and death among females is not fully explainable as a result of smoking. It may be due to the types of lung cancer females commonly develop.

Adenocarcinoma is one type of lung cancer that is more common in females. It takes longer for quitting smoking to decrease the risk of adenocarcinoma in comparison with other types of lung cancer. Although adenocarcinoma does not correlate highly with smoking, the 2018 analysis states that there is still an 8% risk reduction after smoking cessation.

Learn more about lung cancer in women.

Cervical cancer affects the cervix, which sits at the bottom of the uterus. Worldwide, cervical cancer is the fourth most common type of cancer among females.

Cervical cancer does not usually cause symptoms in the early stages. This is why routine cervical screening, or pap smears, are important for detecting cervical cancer early.

If the cancer grows, it may cause:

  • abnormal vaginal bleeding, such as spotting, bleeding after sex, or bleeding after menopause
  • unusual vaginal discharge, which may contain blood
  • pelvic pain
  • pain during or immediately after sex

If the cancer becomes advanced, it may cause:

  • leg swelling
  • difficulty urinating
  • difficulty having bowel movements
  • difficulty urinating, or a change in urinary habits
  • blood in the urine

Learn about how cervical cancer impacts Black women.

Uterine cancer begins in the cells that line the uterus, or the womb. Other names for this type of cancer include endometrial or womb cancer. The symptoms of uterine cancer include:

  • abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • unusual vaginal discharge without signs of blood
  • difficult or painful urination
  • pain during intercourse
  • pain or a mass in the pelvic area
  • unintentional weight loss

In females who have periods, abnormal bleeding may include:

  • periods that are heavier than usual
  • bleeding between periods
  • unexpected changes in the menstrual cycle

Uterine cancer is more common among females who have reached menopause. After menopause, any bleeding is unusual and warrants evaluation from a doctor.

The ovaries are the organs that store eggs, or ova. They are connected to the womb by the fallopian tubes. Cancer can develop in or around the ovaries or in the fallopian tubes.

Previously, doctors believed fallopian tube cancer was rare. But more recent research suggests it may be where precursors to ovarian cancers originate.

The most common symptoms of ovarian cancer are:

  • bloating
  • abdominal pain
  • feeling full quickly when eating, or trouble eating enough
  • feeling the urge to urinate frequently

Less common symptoms include:

  • fatigue
  • pain during sex
  • back pain
  • changes to bowel habits
  • constipation
  • weight loss
  • unexplained changes to periods

Many symptoms of early stage cancer are similar to other diseases. For this reason, it is important to speak with a doctor about any new or unexplained symptoms, wherever possible.

The American Cancer Society states that the following symptoms can sometimes indicate cancer, although they are also symptoms of many other conditions:

  • unusual lumps or swelling anywhere around the body
  • fatigue that does not ease with rest
  • unintentional weight loss or gain of 10 pounds or more
  • loss of appetite
  • persistent pain
  • headache
  • changes to hearing or vision
  • mouth sores, pain, bleeding, or numbness
  • yellowing of the skin or eyes (jaundice)
  • nausea or vomiting
  • bowel movement changes, such as diarrhea, constipation, pain with defecation, or rectal bleeding
  • changes in stool appearance, such as narrow, thin stools
  • urinary changes, such as pain when urinating or blood in the urine
  • fever or night sweats

Early detection is essential for improving the success of cancer treatments. For some types of cancer, symptoms may not be noticeable until tumors have already grown or spread.

If someone is at high risk for cancers such as lung cancer or cervical cancer, they should speak with a doctor about measures that help with detecting cancer early, as well as reducing overall risk.

In many cases, the symptoms of cancer are the same in females as in males. They vary depending on the type, location, and progression of the cancer. For example, skin cancer may be visible even in the early stages, while other types of cancer are more difficult to detect.

Some types of cancer only occur in those with female reproductive organs. Abdominal pain, pelvic pain, or unusual bleeding can be symptoms of these types of cancer. It is best to speak with a doctor about any unexplained symptoms, as the symptoms of cancer can be similar to other diseases.